After Kentucky survived against Wichita State Sunday, a lot of attention was given to the way De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo played, especially late in the game. However, not nearly enough attention was given to Derek Willis.
Remember he’s the senior who has been blasted by coach John Calipari for three years and often criticized both by fans and the media for his lack of defense. However, he’s a big reason UK not only won Sunday, but also has won 13 straight games.
Willis hit two second-half 3-pointers against Wichita State. He had nine points, eight rebounds, three steals and one blocked shot. It’s the kind of numbers he’s been putting up a lot recently and his rebounding has helped make UK a much better team. Same with his shot blocking ability (he has 17 blocked shots in the last seven games).
For Kentucky to make the Final Four, Kentucky will need more of that from Willis. But not only is he playing his best, Calipari also has the most confidence in Willis right now that he’s had in his four years at UK.
Which Kentucky freshman might have the biggest upside in the NBA?
That’s a question I posed to Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook editor Chris Dortch, who also writes for nba.com, during the Southeastern Conference Tournament after he watched the Cats win three games.
“I think if Malik Monk can add bulk and strength, he’s got the ability to score at a high rate at the next level. So he might have the best chance to be a No. 1 option scoring option for his team,” Dortch said.
“Having said that, good point guards are always a rare commodity, so De’Aaron Fox is unique in that respect. And after researching a story for Bam Adebayo during the NCAA tournament, a lot of people in the program think he’s barely scratched the surface of what he’s capable of doing.”
Bottom line? Dortch thinks all three are going to be really good at the next level.
His first season at Kentucky was even more of a learning experience than linebacker Kash Daniel anticipated.
“It was like a rollercoaster,” said Daniel. “This was my first year to really learn about playing football. Pulling guards, check calls, all that stuff. Back in high school you would just see the ball and tackle the guy. Now you can’t do it.
“In high school you were trying to do everybody’s job. Now you do your job and once you secure your job then you can help somebody else. But if you don’t do your job first, you screw the whole play up.”
Daniel is now in his second spring practice getting set for his sophomore season where he figures to get a lot more playing time at middle linebacker.
“I have had a fun experience with these guys and that is what I like the most about football. I love the game itself, but just the friendships and bond you build with the guys is just something amazing,” the Paintsville product said. “I spend 12 hours a day with these dudes and clowns. You think I go home mad? Absolutely not.
“I have had a great time learning from the coaches and everybody around me. Courtney Love, Jordan Jones. Being on special teams and making plays for myself, my school. I just love it and all that goes with it.”
Daniel was an in-state star and one of the gems in Kentucky’s 2016 recruiting class. He set high expectations for himself. He wanted to start on the punt, kickoff and kickoff return teams. He wanted to be a playmaker when he did get in games. He also wanted to be a “great” teammate no matter what his role turned out to be.
“I keep it real. I knew coming in I would not be a starter. Courtney (Love) had a lot of experience ahead of me. It has been really great to learn from him and see what he does,” Daniel said. “He is a technician and really a sound, fundamental linebacker. He doesn’t miss his gap, miss his keys. To sit back and take a mental rep and watch him has been great.”
Daniel could be Love’s primary backup this year as part of a linebacking group that has a lot more experience — and much higher expectations from the UK coaching staff.
“What makes it so great is that nothing is ever given to you and you have to work your butt off to get time on the field,” Daniel said. “That is what makes football such a great sport. In sports and life in general, there is always somebody that is out there just as good if not better than you.
“When they come in, it is your job to say, ‘OK you are just getting here, so let’s have a competition. If you win, you win and I will support you. But if I win, I am going out there to make plays.’”